Tyger Latham, Psy.D.

Tyger Latham Psy.D.

Therapy Matters

The Political Brain

Our current economic crisis is as much about human psychology as it is politics.

Posted Aug 09, 2011

The United States is in the midst of the world's largest debt crisis.  What we need is leadership; what we're getting is anything but.  Politicians in Washington are unable--or perhaps more accurately, unwilling--to put aside ideological differences in order to reach an agreement that might actually help this country out of the current economic crisis.  Why are our leaders unable to put aside partisanship and lead?  The answer may have more to do with human psychology than actual politics.

I'm reminded of what Dick Armey, the former Speaker of the House said in 2002 shortly before retiring from office: "Liberals are, in my estimation, just not bright people."  He later went on to clarify that what he meant to say was that Liberals tend to be drawn to "occupations of the heart," while conservatives favor "occupations of the brain."  I was no fan of Dick Armey--which I guess makes me a Liberal by definition--but in his own awkward way, I think the former Speaker might have been on to something.  

Psychologists have long known that human emotion is controlled by certain areas of the brain.  Using MRI scans, scientists at the University College London have found that political orientations are correlated with brain structures.   According to these British scientists, young people who identified as liberal tended to have a larger anterior cingulate cortex--a part of the brain involved in processing conflicting information.  While those who identified as conservative were more likely to have larger amygdalas--a region important for recognizing threats.  According to the study's lead author, Ryota Kanai, "individuals with a large amygdala are more sensitive to fear," and might therefore be "more inclined to integrate conservative views into their belief system. On the other hand, our findings of an association between anterior cingulate cortex volume and political attitudes may be linked with tolerance to uncertainty," which could account for the acceptance of more "liberal views." 

Psychology also seems to play an instrumental role in our political affiliations.  Generally, people identify with a political party and only then develop their individual political values.  However, the original decision to become either a Democrat or a Republican often rests with one's family of origin.  More times than not, it is our parent's political affiliations that influence our own political identifications.  Nevertheless, one's family of origin only accounts for part of the answer.  According to MRI scans, we may also form our political affiliations by unconsciously detecting commonalities with those around us.  This was the conclusion of the social psychologist Donn Byrne, PhD, who in the mid-60's conducted a series of experiments in which participants were given a description of several hypothetical strangers' beliefs and then were asked which stranger they would most enjoy having as a co-worker.  What Byrne discovered in conducting these experiments was that people consistently preferred the company of people who shared their beliefs and values.  The conclusion: political identity starts with a shared temperament and only later are our political positions developed and solidified.  This also helps to explain the phenomenon of why people so often vote against their own financial and social interests: people prefer to be around like-minded individuals, even when doing so runs counter to their individualistic interests.    

So, there you have it.  I can guarantee with 99 percent accuracy that in the coming months, we can expect more of the same, with Republicans and Democrats fighting the same old ideological battles.  Sometimes these politicians are just so predictable!


Tyger Latham, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, DC.  He counsels individuals and couples and has a particular interest in sexual traumagender development, and LGBT concerns.  His blog, Therapy Matters, explores the art and science of psychotherapy.

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